MANCHESTER PUB SIGNS
Though I have had a lifelong passion for pubs and beer, my fascination for pub and inn-signs is relatively recent. After my stepfather died in February 2009, my mum gave me his digital camera. I hadn’t owned my own camera for over 20 years. Film costs and my mum’s tendency to bore me to tears with old family photos put me off the hobby, but I soon fell in love with my new toy and started taking pictures at every turn, many of them to illustrate my stories, poems and web pages.
I decided to get a few pictures of a pub, the Ben Briefly, featured in my poem of the same name, which refers specifically to the pub sign portrait of the dialect poet. The pub had been closed for months, which I knew, but I was saddened to see that the pub sign central to my most successful poem to date had been removed from its fixtures.
Ke Sera Sera, I thought, and then noticed more and more that other pubs also lacked pub signs, whether open or closed. When I spotted bars that still had them, I took a picture, and before I realized it, I was on a crusade. I started talking to other drinkers, landlords, Internet friends and also looking at pub sign related websites and books. A new hobby was born for me.
The decline of the pub sign as a logo and an art form has many causes, and the biggest problem is pub closure itself. (See my companion essay WHY PUBS CLOSE). The rise of café bar culture is another factor, with many pubs seeing traditional pub signs as old fashioned and preferring a modern trendy slick image that can often look soul-less. I walked through central Manchester’s Village, with over 100 bars crammed into three main streets, Sackville Street, Bloom Street, & Canal Street. Only two bars there retain traditional pub signs, Paddy’s Goose and The Rembrandt.
Chain bar groups like Wetherspoons and Last Orders have few original pub signs. An exception is the Up-Steps in Oldham, owned by Wetherspoons but retaining its traditional identity. Independent free houses and microbrewery-supported pubs are more likely to have pub signs preserved.
There are a few new pub signs out there too – The Piccadilly, in the city centre, has a sign depicting the three ages of tram travel, a horse drawn tram besides an Edwardian electric tram, and a modern Metrolink Tram vehicle.
I took photos of those and every pub with a sign I encountered, extending my search to the suburbs in an ongoing personal survey. I find many closed, often derelict pubs, and many still running but devoid of pub signage – the ones with pub signs become a source of joy and I find each leaving me feeling like a train-spotter seeing The Flying Scotsman.
My quest is rarely a pub-crawl – I often get my photos fix when the live pubs are shut. A good pub sign is no guarantee of the quality of the pub and there are many fine bars without pub signs too. My journey becomes more of a ramble – a trip to the pub in which I actually lose some weight, though the few I do call in put some back on me.
I use public transport to get to pubs. In built up town centre areas, I’ll find dozens in a few hours. More remote isolated bars mean I take fewer pub shots, though I do photograph many other interesting sites as well as the pub signs.
I’ve known that pubs have been disappearing for decades in Greater Manchester. My family are all heavy drinkers and many a party at home or in bars involves some reminiscences by my elders on the happy (and sometimes) sad times in a great pub now long since gone. Manchester drinkers seem to remember every pint consumed with affection, years after it was supped. As one of my step-father’s best friends regularly says, a pub crawl, with one pint of ale supped in each bar in turn, down Oldham road in North Manchester would once have seen the drinkers unable to have reached Ancoats before having to stop for being too tired and wobbly to continue further. Now you could reach Newton Heath, four miles on. One startling revelation of my exploration was how many of the pubs even I remember directly seeing and drinking in has gone forever. I feel too young at 47 to be so nostalgic or reflective on a golden age of drinking, but I am.
Pub signs reflect a great part of Greater Manchester’s history. The pubs of Oldham often depict hunting and hare coursing – See The Hare & Hounds for example. Popular pastimes when much of the built up area was woodland and meadow. Navigation and boat bars reflect the canal building that was the blood stream of the city’s Industrial revolution Bars named after the churches often have signs depicting the church nearby, even if that church has gone or been replaced by a new building, so the pub sign becomes as historical record as any old photograph.
There are humorous pub signs, The Bricklayer’s Arms on Moston Lane, depicts a brickie working and drinking at the same time, a practice that only cowboys and the lazy unsupervised would get away with. The Ship Inn, in Middleton depicts a canal cruiser, a boat with delusions of grandeur if it thinks of itself as a ship.
Much pub art is quite literal – If the pub has Duck, Lion, Goose, Fox in its name, the chances are that they are heavily depicted on the pub sign. Lions may however be depicted heraldically. A few go against the grain. Oldham’s Dog & Duck has a Golden Lion pub sign.
There are some real curios in my search too. The Empress in Cheetham Hill has a portrait of queen Victoria on a pub sign where the pub itself has gone forever. Normally, a pub sign vanishes soon after a pub closes down. Here, she remains, over a furniture shop, an Empress without an Empire.
In Oldham Werneth, The Friendship Inn has a very enigmatic pub sign, with a man sitting by a milestone marker pointing to Oldham. He has a dog by his side and a lion watches both from the background. Quite what is going on is unclear. Perhaps the man lost far from home dreams of Oldham and his friends, with only his faithful dog as companion, taking his mind of the dangers he still faces.
If I have a favourite, it is the pub sign for the Boat & Horses, on Broadway in Chadderton, a 3D effect in the paint gives a simple picture of a horse drawn canal boat a great sense of depth and clarity.
Every trip out proves to be a great adventure, with new finds at each turn. The people I meet initially find my activity strange, but soon develop a genuine interest in what I am doing. Many have bought me a pint and told me something of the history of the pubs, or a list of other pubs and signs I should look out for. One chap gave me photos of his own of pubs he liked. My city has become an open-air art gallery, and one I continue to explore with great enthusiasm, and I look forward to my forthcoming journeys to other towns to see what their pub signage is like too. When I find out, you’ll be the second to know.
See my other beer and pub pages at BEER AND PUB CONTENTS
Copyright. Arthur Chappell
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